JERUSALEM — A record 14 homegrown features competed at the Jerusalem Film Festival this month — double the number in 2003.
“Israeli cinema is having one of it finest hours in many years,” wrote respected critic Uri Klein of newspaper Haaretz. “This exciting output — eight worthy films out of 14 — proves the old argument that quantity can yield quality is correct.”
But rather than celebrating the bumper crop, the Israeli film industry was lamenting an imminent cash drought.
The Israeli govt. has slashed funding by 30% to 45 million shekels ($9.1 million) in 2004 $13.6 million in 2003.
A paltry sum by Hollywood standards, this money is the lifeblood of the Israeli film industry. The average budget of a local feature is $800,000-$1.5 million.
Not only does the cash bankroll key financiers like the Israeli Film Fund (IFF) and the Rabinowitz Fund, it also partly pays the costs of the Haifa, Jerusalem, Sderot and Tel Aviv cinematheques and their festivals.
Local players say the cuts are completely against the spirit of the Cinema Law launched in 2001 to reinvigorate the industry. Under that law, 2% of the gross income of commercial TV stations was to be plowed into cinema.
An independent audit commissioned by the IFF revealed the cash-strapped Finance Ministry, which channels the funds, had withheld part of the takings.
“Why are we mad?” says IFF head Katriel Schory. “Because we fought like crazy for the Cinema Law and now it is being undermined.”
He says the benefits of the law have been threefold: the domestic box office for Israeli film has tripled; a number of pics have enjoyed success abroad; and local and foreign investment has increased since the ’90s, when the industry was moribund.
The local industry mobilized itself during the Jerusalem Film Fest.
Every Israeli work — feature, short or doc — was preceded by a trailer featuring clips from popular local classics and bannered, “Without films we won’t have memories.”
“Last year, we backed 14 films; this year we will only be able to help five or six,” says Schory.
Pics at the Jerusalem fest were a diverse bunch.
They ranged from Keren Yedaya’s “Or” about a Tel Aviv prostitute and her teenage daughter, to Gidi Dar’s endearing “Ushpizin” about a newly ultra-orthodox couple, to Joseph Cedar’s coming-of-age tale “Campfire” set in the early 1980s.
Most were majority financed by one of the funds, with local broadcasters, distribs and foreign partners taking minority stakes.
“We financed 12 films over the past year, but we could never make that many films on our own,” says Naftali Alter, drama department head at cabler Hot (formerly ICP). “Israeli cinema is blooming at the moment, but before the Cinema Law it was a constant fight.”
Hot, which has set aside some $20 million for Hebrew-lingo pics from 2000 to 2005, contributes an average $200,000-$300,000 to a film.
“It’s very tough. People’s expectations have been built up, but now there’s a risk some productions won’t get off the ground,” says David Silber of Metro Communications.
A joint venture between Silber, vet producer Micky Rabinovitz and Leon and Moshe Edery of distrib United King, Metro has backed 10 pics over the last two years, including Avi Nesher’s local “Turn Left at the End of the World.”
“United King has sparked a revolution here. Their activities have encouraged other distributors to back local films,” says helmer Cedar. His “Campfire” is being distribbed by Globus Group.
Metro, says Silber, is increasingly focusing on co-productions with foreign partners.
It made “Metallic Blues” with Canadian BBR and German Gemini Film, and “Turn Left” with Samuel Hadida’s Davis Films out of France.
According it IFF, local pics have attracted some $5.5 million in foreign investment since 2001. But Schory is concerned that without adequate Israeli funds to match foreign input, the money will stop.
Despite the growing clouds, Cedar, who is developing a pic about the Israeli retreat from the crusader castle of Beaufort in Southern Lebanon in 2000, is certain his next film will get made.
“It can take two or three years,” he says. “But if you’re determined enough you’ll get your film made.”